By Pashtana Usufzy
The Working Press
International outreach has crawled up the to-do list of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Two years ago, the organization established its first international chapter. An SPJ Works blog post from 2010 describes the Qatar student chapter, stating, “Ten years from now, they hope to change the media landscape in Qatar.”
Effecting that change, however, is a faraway vision for two chapter members.
The difference, the two women said, is that Qatar’s strict government regulation makes it difficult to practice journalism using traditional American techniques. They want to use SPJ as a conduit of information and as a resource for connections, which is what prompted them to attend the convention.
When a hotel employee jokingly asked Wang to take his picture with her university-supplied camera, she laughed. That doesn’t happen in Qatar.
“People ask a lot of questions about, ‘Why are you taking pictures?’” she said.
While most student SPJ members might look for social media and hiring information at conventions, the pair was more focused on organizing security discussions and networking with legal representatives.
The young women have their reasons.
Their classmates often are the target of harassment and ill treatment for asking questions of government officials, they said. The students say the president of their SPJ chapter, Usama Alony Hamed, was arrested after filming a fire in Qatar’s capital, Doha, while on public property.
Hamed was accused of being a spy and was released, but he is unable to leave the country. He had planned to attend the convention.
“We’re hoping to establish connections with the legal community in case anything like this happens again,” Haddad said.
Wang said arrests and run-ins with the law are not uncommon.
“We’ve got a lot of students in trouble with the authorities,” she said.
The pair arrived at the convention with the hopes of interacting with SPJ and opening the door to a stronger partnership. The organization is an ocean away from the United States, and the distance is more than just miles, they say.
“We have this name. We have this link to SPJ, but we don’t really have a connection,” Wang said.
“Even though we’re like halfway across the world, we still want to have ties to SPJ,” she said.
On Thursday, SPJ leaders established guidelines for creating more chapters outside the United States, and SPJ President John Ensslin said he’s encouraged by the expansion abroad. He believes journalists dedicated to transparency can help spark discussion.
“Maybe these countries aren’t quite there yet in terms of acting independently or [having] freedom of the press,’’ he said. “But sometimes if you introduce an idea into a country, it takes hold,” he said. However, SPJ cannot change a country’s character, Ensslin said.
“I’m not going into this naively thinking we can send a letter to Qatar and make things better,” he said.
Wang said she believes SPJs presence in Qatar could make it easier for journalists to work there.
Ensslin said he’s looking forward to listening to the women’s concerns, but cautions that SPJ should focus its energies on smaller international projects before tackling nations with free press issues.
But Wang and Haddad say they don’t espouse goals of radically changing Qatar’s culture. The connection means their events will have stronger ties to SPJ’s mission.
“SPJ is providing us with the opportunity to start conversations,” Wang said.